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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quartet for Strings no 15 in D minor, KV 421/417b “Haydn” (1783) [31:38]
Quartet for Strings no 21 in D major, KV 575 “Prussian” (1789) [23:42]
Hagen Quartett
rec. February 1995, Großer Saal 1, Musikverein, Salzburg (KV 575) & April 1995, Rittersaal, Schloss Rapperswill (KV 21)
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 449 136-2 [55:28]

The Salzburg-based Hagen Quartett (Lukas Hagen (violin); Rainer Schmidt (violin); Veronika Hagen (viola); Clemens Hagen (cello)) celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its formation this year and could hardly have a finer pedigree. Over the years, they have recorded mostly for Deutsche Grammophon and this Presto re-issue features two quartets linked by their prevailingly dark and melancholy moods; the intelligent notes by Thomas Callan express it thus: “If the Quartet in D minor sings with the voice of Mozart’s fatalism, K. 575 is imbued with that ineffable fusion of melancholy, resignation and acceptance that so often characterizes the music of his last two years.” Surely the implication there, however, is that, rather than being contrasted, the moods in both quartets are virtually the same, as surely being fatalistic resignation, but let that pass, as the validity of the observation still obtains.

There are so many distinguished and recommendable recordings of these quartets available that a reviewer is pretty much on a hiding to nothing in attempting to differentiate among them and suggest a hierarchy. I have my favourites: as with the Beethoven quartets, I find myself defaulting to the Chilingirian Quartet but I prize versions by the Cleveland (no. 15), Küchl (no. 21) and Heutlinger (both) quartets. One discriminator is to confine the scope of comparison to digital recordings, in which case, remaining in the picture are the Chilingirians, whose “Ten Great” Mozart string quartets, including the two featured here, I very favourably reviewed.

My first impressions of the Hagen’s playing were mixed. They open K. 421, the second “Haydn” quartet, employing a thin, wispy, vibrato-free tone which is clearly the result of applying a period” affect to modern instruments. Textures are transparent but the tone is bloodless and even a little strident. This certainly accentuates the fragility and pathos of the descending Phrygian tetrachord which is the basis of the quartet’s motto but immediate comparison with the Chilingirian Quartet’s warmer, gentle sound and more indulgent phrasing sound set me a dilemma, as the two versions sound so distinct from each other that they could almost be different yet aesthetically equally valid pieces. In a sense, one is “classical” the other “modernist” Mozart. Another major difference is that the Chilingirians do not take the repeats and reaction to that is very much a matter of the listener’s preference.

Consistent with that contrast in styles is the way the Chilingirians caress the Andante, whereas the Hagen press much harder on the tempo, which to my ears again renders it wholly different in mood and even a little perfunctory. The main effect of the stormy, strident Minuet is one of incongruence: Mozart suddenly and unexpectedly morphs from the searing melancholy of the opening into a weird but sunny little Trio in the form of a dotted-note riff from the first violin, which trips up and down the scale accompanied by pizzicato strumming before returning to the turbulence of the opening. How surprised and even puzzled Haydn and co must have been when they first played through these works.

The Hagen Quartett takes this movement more grimly and deliberately than the Chilingirians who find more humour and lyricism in the Trio and in the same way work the variations of the finale more flexibly and affectionately than the Hagen who delineate the dotted rhythm motif more pointedly, employ a much wider dynamic range and are altogether more aggressive. Of course, the Chilingirians are arguably “prettifying” that which should be disturbing and I like the attack of the Hagen’s concluding bars but on balance I prefer the beauty of the Chilingirian Quartet’s manner; you may not.

The later quartet, K. 575, was reputedly composed with King Friedrich Wilhelm in mind as both the dedicatee and amateur cellist performer, as in the Trio of the Minuet a cello solo is provided - not that there’s any evidence he played or even heard it. It begins in that wistful mood peculiar to both Mozart and Schubert of smiling through tears and I think it a greater work than K. 421. The Hagen capture its nuances elegantly, heeding Mozart’s instructions of “sotto voce” and “dolce”; indeed, their manner for this quartet seems to be altogether more relaxed than it is in K. 421 – I note that it was recorded at a different time in another venue and wonder if that was a factor. Once again, however, the Chilingirian Quartet’s manner is more “Romantic”. Both quartets play the Andante serenade exquisitely but I hear a duskier, more soulful tone in the Hagen’s version -and they are also rhythmically freer and more flexible, so they prevail here. The Minuet is charmingly executed but, as you would expect from this quartet, it is not without its deeper, darker undertones. The intricate counterpart of the finale is despatched with elan; the Chilingirians are swifter and lighter here and their application of vibrato sweetens the mood, whereas the Hagen Quartett is more emphatic and the players are more inclined to harden their tone in order to inject greater acerbity into the music.

As you may divine, using these two recordings as basis for comparison reveals that both have great virtues and a preference for one over another is a matter of taste, especially as at different times and in a variety of ways each quartet scores depending on what the listener is looking for. I can say, however, that this recording is absorbing and rewarding whatever your inclination for Mozartian performance practice.

Ralph Moore

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